Sunday, January 19, 2014

Minorities: conform or differentiate to be successful?

My life is divided in 2 large blocks.   The difference between the two is where I fit in the lenses of diversity.  When living in Brazil I belonged to the majority group when considering physical and cultural aspects.   I had an “acceptable” look, behavior, thought process, accent, etc.   When I moved to the US I instantly change to being a minority.   During the process of moving I didn’t change as a person but everything I was had instantly become different. I was out of the norm, and my same behavior and thought process would lead into completely different results.

While the US has been working hard to incorporate and accept minorities, people can’t completely change subconscious instincts and the first reaction to different is negative in most cases.   Humans will naturally struggle with change and something that isn’t like them.  When I moved to the US I was different.   I still am today even though my Brazilian friends would say my behavior has Americanized.

One of the key things I recall during my initial struggle with the relocation and reporting to an American boss was the general disconnect between my ideas and everyone else’s.  I’d look into problems and resolutions in a completely different way.  When I shared my thoughts people would look at me as if I was speaking Portuguese (or Brazilianese as some called it, one example of the numerous funny things I heard about Brazil).  They could not understand what I was trying to convey.

That’s the major challenge and risk of being a minority representative.  If people don’t understand you for too long they’ll naturally question your ability to be where you are.   So the natural thing most minority people do is try to fit in.

Some of the most successful Hispanics I met could be called Americans occupying Hispanic bodies, especially those working for traditional American companies or domestic oriented organizations.  Their effort to fit in was so massive they became someone else.   International organizations are more used and accepting of the differences.

So what is the right answer?  Should aspiring minority members try to conform to be successful or leverage their differences?

I have to say that based on experience the more you look and think like people around you the easier your way up will be.  However, if you completely let go of your uniqueness you’ll become nobody and will hardly be able to be successful.  Adapting is necessary to remove subconscious resistance and leveraging your diversity will differentiate you.

Our natural instinct is to be wary of something that is different (in most cases).   All this will be less relevant as the differences become the norm but it takes time.  We still see China Town or Mexican Quarters.   It’s a psychological and physical protection.  Within this area nobody will judge their accent or behavior.  However, there is no way to escape the fusion of the cultures over time.  Then there will be new differences coming up that we will resist to.

As a minority we are in a harder position.   Not always because of intentional resistance, but because of the way humans are wired.  As a member of minorities our path is harder but never give up of what makes you different.  The friction you feel is your role in creating a new culture and that’s a big accomplishment.